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Review: The Women of the Pulitzer: The Music of Julia Wolfe, Caroline Shaw, and Jennifer Higdon | The Cliburn | The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

These Womens' Work

The Cliburn presented a terrific program featuring work by Pulitzer Prize-winning women composers.

published Monday, November 18, 2019

Photo: Kait Moreno | Peter Serling | J.D. Scott
From left: Caroline Shaw, Julia Wolfe, and Jennifer Higdon


Fort Worth — Only eight women have won the Pulitzer Prize in music since the prize’s inception in 1943. The music of three of those women was celebrated at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth as part of The Cliburn at the Modern concert series.

Jennifer Higdon, Julia Wolfe, and Caroline Shaw have all won the prize this decade; indeed, the Pulitzer in music may be moving toward a corrective course, since five of the ten winners in the 2010s have been women (the other two are Du Yun and Ellen Reid).

Saturday’s program combined moderator and pianist Buddy Bray’s video interviews with Higdon and Shaw with chamber works by the three composers. The performances featured local musicians—in addition to Bray, violinists Swang Lin and Amy Faires, violist Sarah Kienle, and cellist Leda Larson took the stage.

Higdon’s music often focuses on colors, including both pieces performed on Saturday. Her Color Through for piano trio includes two movements: Wondrous White is warmly evocative and lyrical, not quite melodic, but leading us there. The jazz-infused Brilliant Blue uses percussive techniques in the strings, such as pizzicato and ricochet, for a fast-moving, energetic romp. Lin, Larson, and Bray all excelled here, but Fort Worth Symphony Associate Concertmaster Lin was especially impressive in the virtuosic requirements of Brilliant Blue, with its quick scales and alternating right and left hand pizzicato.

After some excerpts from a video interview with Higdon, Bray performed the lone Julia Wolfe piece on the program, Compassion, a piano solo written shortly after 9/11 and evoking the events of that day. Wolfe often ties her music to historical events: coal mining, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. The piece begins with close intervals in the left hand that are soon interrupted by atonal crashing in the right, continuing to a false ending with a long sustain, then picking up the close intervals again in the right hand. The symbolism is nearly unmistakable, but Bray played with an admirable matter-of-factness that kept the piece from sliding into maudlin sentimentality.  

The offering from Caroline Shaw was her quartet Punctum, which takes its inspiration from a moment in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion that Shaw finds especially moving. Quotations from Bach weave in and out of a much more contemporary musical language, as the piece is literally punctuated at its end with a spooky ponticello effect in the cello and pizzicato elsewhere — certainly a departure from Bach. Dallas Opera Orchestra violinist Amy Faires and Dallas Symphony Acting Associate Principal violist Sarah Kienle joined Lin and Larson for a fine performance.

Last up was another piano trio by Higdon, this one containing two movements. First is the lyrical and truly beautiful Pale Yellow, which begins with a cello solo, lovingly played by Fort Worth Symphony Associate Principal cellist Leda Larson, supported by Bray on piano, then adding Lin’s violin. This is unusually pretty music for the 21st century, and while beauty is certainly not the only aesthetic, it’s certainly a welcome respite. The second movement, Fiery Red, provides a stark contrast. Frantic, granular, chaotic, this movement requires virtuosic playing from all the performers, most especially Lin. This was excellent playing of very difficult repertoire.

It was a shame this program wasn’t better attended. One attendee expressed disappointment that the composers weren’t there in person, and perhaps the lack of a big name from out of town discouraged some potential ticket buyers. But hearing such excellent performances of music by women from some of our best local players is a fine opportunity indeed, and the video interviews were charming and elucidating. Thanks For Reading

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These Womens' Work
The Cliburn presented a terrific program featuring work by Pulitzer Prize-winning women composers.
by J. Robin Coffelt

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